Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Silly Christian Brawls, History and the Crimean War

When my wife and I traveled through Greece, Turkey and Israel, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is one of the holiest places in Christianity, supposedly the site of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified. There is even a supposed post-hole where the cross was thought to be placed.

We were told an odd story about this church. It seems that several Christian sects cooperate, if that is the right word to describe the rivalries that result, to take care of the church. We were told that these various sects actually sometimes get into physical fights over who gets to sweep what parts of the church. I always assumed this was an exaggeration, but it seems it is literal, since the exact same kind of rivalry, this time between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, erupted into a very silly brawl this very Christmas season, 2011, and was caught on film. From the church where Jesus was supposed to have been born in Bethlehem:

This isn't the first time, by ANY means that this has happened. From 2007:

Let me just say that this is the kind of thing that makes me so skeptical about organized THIS what Jesus was all about? Let me emphasize that THIS kind of crap makes organized religion (and it isn't just Christianity...brawls between Mitnagdim and Hasidic Jewish groups in the old country in the 19th Century were no different!) look outright stupid.

But these stupid, broom battles between Christian clergy have at times been part of international struggles leading to outright war. Specifically, it strikes me that this kind of stupid broom battle is a distant echo of some of the issues that led to the Crimean War. The Crimean War represents an early stage to the lead up to WW I and is one of the first instances of Britain and France acting as allies rather than enemies, something that became critical for WW I and WW II. Prior to the Crimean War, France and Britain were rivals or outright enemies for centuries, with only occasional moments of cooperation. The Crimean War, partly sparked by these kinds of stupid broom battles between clergy in the "holy" land, was the moment where France and Britain became firm allies, initially against Russia, and later along with Russia against Prussia/Germany and Austria.

The Crimean War was the result of the slow, steady decline of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was one of the longest living superpower of all history, spanning roughly 600 years. But that 600 years included about 250 years of strong, dominant expansion, some 100+ years of tenuous holding on to prestige as Europe caught up and surpassed the Turks, and then another 100+ years of clear decline. During the declining years of the Ottoman Empire, they were often kept alive by the fact that the European powers, generally Britain, France, Russia, Austria and Prussia/Germany, couldn't decide how the spoils would be divided if the Ottoman Empire actually collapsed. So rather than fight it out over the spoils, the European powers, in the last 100 or so years of the Ottoman Empire, preferred to prop up that failing Empire. So although various territories (like Wallachia, Serbia, Greece, etc.) might be detached from the Ottoman Empire and made part of another empire or made an independent state, the European powers refused to allow the entire Empire to fail simply because it would lead to a world war among the dominant superpowers over the remnants of the Ottoman territories.

So at various times Austria and Russia, Germany and Russia, Britain and France, Britain and Russia, etc. discussed how the Ottoman Empire should be carved up, usually no solid agreement could be reached that would avoid war, so the Great Powers helped the Turks survive. This is not to say that the Turks themselves played no role in this diplomatic and military game. They at times were very skilled at playing the Great Powers against each other to secure their own existence. But there were times where they were unable to act effectively and were saved only by the actions of outsiders.

Russia had long had designs on Turkish territory. Russia envisioned itself the rightful ruler of the Balkans (in opposition to both Austria and the Ottomans), the rightful protector of ALL Orthodox Christian sects (many of whom hated eachother, as the broom battle video above illustrates today), AND the rightful heir of the Roman Empire and thus of Constantinople/Istanbul itself. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great particularly articulated these claims and tried to carry them out, with only limited success. The Ottoman Empire was already declining at these times, so both Peter and Catherine the Greats could enforce some of their claims. But by no means all because the Ottomans still had some fight in them and no one else wanted Russia to be so powerful.

Nicholas I was another Tsar who wanted to exert Russia's claims over the Balkans, over Orthodox Christians world wide, and over what was once the Byzantine Empire. He tried making deals with Britain (then ruled by Queen Victoria), his main ally against their mutual rival France (ruled by Napoleon III) to divide the slowly failing Ottoman Empire between them. Britain was not ready for this to happen, so no deal was made between these two Great Powers. Austria was another power that wanted to carve up the Ottoman Empire, but already at this time Russia and Austria were competing, in the name of Orthodox vs. Catholic, Slavic vs. Germanic rule, over who would dominated the Balkans. So Austria and Russia were already starting the collision course that would ultimately spark WW I. But where everyone else fell was not yet clear. France tended to side against Russia. Britain tended to side against France. Prussia tended to also side against France. So had WW I happened before the Crimean War, you might have had Britain, Russia and Prussia against France and Austria with Turkey and Italy falling where ever they had the temporary advantage. But in the 1850's this all began to change. Not that the alliances that fell into WW I were yet formed so early, but one key alliance was formed, first in opposition to Russia and in support of Turkey, that later became the key to WW I. France and Britain, whose rivalry formed the basis of most wars and diplomatic interactions up until then, started forming a firm alliance.

The rivalry between France and Britain was initially a Medieval issue, where rulers from both sides had claims on the same territories due to competing feudal claims. The British royal family were originally the Dukes of Normandy, so had claims in France. The French royals also had ties to key noble families in England who had claims to the throne. So for centuries France and Britain were at odds. It was one of the dominant themes in European politics from roughly 1066 until the 1850's. Roughly for 800 years the British-French rivalry was THE key theme in Europe and beyond. Even the American Revolution was a sideshow of this rivalry and our independence is due to the intervention of France against Britain in their long rivalry.

Tsar Nicholas I, whose main rival was France and whose main ally was Britain and whose main enemies were Austria and the Turks, tried to arrange with Britain a division of Turkey behind everyone else's backs. It was from this discussion that the famous term "Sick Man of Europe" was coined to describe the Ottoman Empire. Britain and Russia disagreed on what was needed. Russia felt that Turkey needed a surgeon to carve it up and Britain felt that it needed a physician to cure it. Russia's insistence on carving up Russia ultimately drove a wedge between it and the rest of Europe, and that wedge started to form the alliances that would lead to WW I even though those alliances evolved over the years between the Crimean War and WW I.

The Russian view was that the end of the Ottoman Empire was inevitable, so why not plan in advance and carve it up. If Russia and Britain cooperated in this, then France and Austria could be excluded and Prussia would probably go along with the winners. This really was no different from what many other European leaders had seen for decades, including Napoleon I, Metternich, and many others. The decline of the Turks had gone on for a long time and the end was seen as inevitable for at least 100 years. So Russia was not unreasonable in their views, even if they were greedy. But no more greedy than Austria, Britain or France, all of whom wanted spoils from the Sick Man of Europe. Prussia was the only country that stayed SOMEWHAT peripheral to this interest in carving up the Ottoman Empire.

But Britain was not willing to see ANYONE get the upper hand in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, not even their ally Russia, so they opted for a continuation of the Sick Man. Tsar Nicholas I was not willing to see that happen, so did everything he could to force war on Turkey on Russia's terms. Overplaying his hand, he slowly forced Britain into an alliance with their arch-rival France against Russia. That Anglo-French alliance, inconceivable in the early 1800's, has essentially persisted until today and was a key factor in the Crimean War, WW I and WW II as well as the Cold War. Tsar Nicholas I and his desire for Russia's traditional claims against Turkey established one of the enduring and dominant alliances of the 20th century.

But what was the main issue? France had traditionally claimed to protect, as a dominant Catholic force, the Christians within the Ottoman Empire. This was the basis of a long-standing alliance between the Ottoman Empire and France dating back to the expansionist days of Turkey. But Russia's very existence depended partly on its claim to be the protector of all Orthodox Christians in the world, particularly in the Ottoman domains. This claim had generally been at odds with what the Ottomans themselves thought as well as with the French claims. So when the Latin and Greek clergy in Bethlehem and Jerusalem got into a conflict over who had the right to sweep the floors and fix the facades of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Russia used this as a way to exert its dominance in Ottoman territories. Needless to say the Ottomans objected. France, which had kind of ignored its claims of protection over Christians in the Ottoman Empire, awoke to the Russian threat and started preparing for war. So Russia and France were ready to go to war over sweeping rights, as it were, within Christian Holy sites within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were desperately trying to claim sovereignty over their own territory despite their near collapse. And Britain was trying to preserve peace, prevent anyone from taking an unfair share of Ottoman territory, and so wanted to prop up the Ottoman Empire.

When Russia clearly became the most belligerent power, using its naval force against Turkey, Britain felt compelled, against tradition, to side with France to preserve Turkey. From this came the Crimean War that embarrassed Russia, preserved Turkey, and cemented an alliance between France and Britain that was to dominate politics for the next century. So far the other alliances that initiated WW I (Germany and Austria, Germany and Turkey, France and Russia, Britain and Serbia) had not formed. But the French-British alliance that was to be critical to WW I and WW II and beyond was forged in the lead up to the Crimean War, in vague support of a traditional claim of France to protect the Catholic right to sweep floors in the churches in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. So those broom wars helped forge this key alliance.

The fact that Russia's other key rival was Austria started to form the Central Powers of WW I. The Russia-Turkey and Russia-Austria rivalries, combined with the battles over who would dominate the Balkans (Austria, Turkey or Russia, with Serbia one of the main local players) set the stage for WW I. Between the Crimean War and WW I the French/Russian and the British/Serbian as well as the Prussian/Austrian alliances were yet to form. And it was only because Prussia was allying with Turkey against Russia that Austria accepted Turkey, its traditional enemy, as an ally in WWI. Russia, as a traditional supporter of the Serbs, was MORE of a threat to Austria than Turkey in its decline ever could be, so Austria sided with Germany and Turkey against Russia. The French-British alliance, forged initially AGAINST Russia in the Crimean War, sided with Serbia against Germany and Austria, formalizing the sides in WW I. Italy could have gone either way, siding with France and Britain almost last minute.

Those alliances were NOT the same as in WW II, but they did set that stage. The French-British alliance continued and strengthened its ties with Russia despite the fall of the Tsars. The German/Austrian alliance became a key event in the lead up to WW II when Germany claimed not just Austria itself, but also some of Austria's German speaking territories (e.g. Czechoslovakia) for its own Empire. British protection of former Ottoman territories led to its ties with Greece, where the first Allied victories over the Axis occurred when the Greeks, with British weapons and uniforms, soundly defeated the Italian and Albanian allies of Germany. That Albanian-Greek fighting was something that was already occurring when various Albanian and Greek warlords were fighting for dominance as Ottoman control faltered.

So the silly broom battles among rival Christian sects in churches in Bethlehem and Jerusalem were one of several conflicts (the rise of Balkan nationalism and the fights among Austria vs. Russia, Albanians vs. Greeks, Greeks vs Greeks, Russia vs. Turkey) that led directly from the lead up to the Crimean War to WW I and through WW I to WW II and the Cold War. The key alliance that linked them all turned out to be the unexpected and new alliance between once arch-rivals France and Britain.

Among the sources for this article are:

Return to Mole's History Page.

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